In the north, growing food, energy and job shortages have led many North Koreans to express a very visible feeling of abandonment by their government. This is not supposed to happen in North Korea, where the power of the dictatorial government is based on the concept of the state protecting and supplying an obedient population. Even more so than during the Great Famine and economic recession of the 1990s, because the collapse of the Soviet Union meant an end to crucial economic support, nothing was as bad as the current covid19 lockdown. People are prevented from traveling on business or to moving food and other goods to where they are needed. The evidence is everywhere outside the capital, Pyongyang, which is an island of plenty in a desert of starvation, darkness and little fuel during the coldest months of the year.
For example, in mid-2020 every household in Pyongyang began receiving some free rice and corn each month, which has now become a matter of life and death for more and more North Koreans. The rest of the country has been distributing local and military reserve food supplies since early in the year, but capital residents stopped receiving any free food in March. Dipping into the military food reserves made it possible for Pyongyang residents to obtain three months of missing food allocations. That does not cover all the missed allocations but did solve the current hunger emergency. Pyongyang residents did not complain about the missing free food distribution because that might result in expulsion from the capital. Even with food shortages Pyongyang is the best place to live in North Korea.
The military food reserves have now been used nationwide to prevent starvation and that means there will soon be no military food reserve. These stockpiles also include fuel, ammo and other items and exist to keep the troops going for 30 days or more in a major war, especially if enemy air power prevents movement of supplies. These military reserves are stored adjacent to major military units. While the military food reserves are being depleted, military units throughout the country have priority when it comes to food, medicine and other supplies available to the local population. This is causing a lot of resentment but the government recognizes the importance of keeping the military loyal. Starving the locals is not a perfect solution because the long terms of conscription (up to ten years) means most families have young men in the military, and these conscripts keep in touch with families and hear about how the priority allocation of supplies is benefiting those in uniform at the expense of the families of the guys carrying the guns. Despite that favoritism, military families are also going hungry. Political officers, who monitor such things, report that a growing number of military personnel, both conscripts as well as career officers and their families, are criticizing the government.
Even the capital is feeling the pain. Pyongyang has always been a showcase city, but a decade ago it became obvious that an even greater portion of the shrinking economic pie was going to the capital. This caused more resentment around the country, especially among officials running the provinces. Even with private generators plus special food and medical shipments, provincial officials felt exiled and abandoned. It became an obsession with many provincial to get a job in the capital or, increasingly to get out of the country.
Pyongyang contains twelve percent of the national population but has a much higher proportion of GDP and national income. The city became the capital because it was a major industrial center during the Japanese occupation (1910-45) and has remained an economic powerhouse. The city also contains the headquarters and many subsidiary components of all national organization. This in includes the secret police (Ministry of State Security or MSS).
Residence in the capital requires official permission which is difficult to get. Police are constantly tracking down and arresting those living in the capital without permission. Legal residence in the capital is not freely granted, mainly because it is a much nicer place to live. There is more of everything, including more hours of electrical power and more economic opportunities for illegal residents. Although the food distribution only goes to legal residents, many of those legal residents were helping to support illegal family and friends living in the capital. Since the end of food distributions there have been more illegal food markets in the capital and fewer new illegals trying to settle down. There are poor families in the capital and the government is providing some of them with additional food once it is verified that these households are not harboring illegals.
Outside the capital, especially along the Chinese border, life is much worse and punishment for disobedience much more severe. For example, in the northeast (Yanggang Province) two cities were recently sentenced to 30 days of strict lockdown starting on February 6 because smuggling with China was continuing and some of the smugglers were getting caught. Provincial officials were under a lot of pressure from the national government to curb smuggling, preferably all of it. To that end border guards were issued more ammo and ordered to shoot on sight anyone seen crossing the border and ignoring orders to halt. So far over a dozen smugglers to defectors have been killed or wounded. In the past troops were issued blank rounds to be used for warning shots and if live ammo was used the troops were supposed to fire warning shots in to the water or ground near the smugglers.
The lockdown meant there were roadblocks everywhere and few people were allowed to freely go to work or markets. This lockdown order proved more troublesome than useful and was lifted after two weeks and several hundred people starving to death. More alarming was the starvation deaths in over twenty army officer’s families. The husbands were stuck on base when the lockdown order came and were unable to contact their families to ensure they got enough food. Before the lockdown quantities of food supplied to these families was reduced and most families had less than a week’s worth of essentials. Starvation victims often ended up in hospitals, where there were no special foods or saline drips available to deal with it. There was also visible anger among the general population over the strict lockdown order.
For decades Yanggang has been notorious for the amount of smuggling that went on along its lengthy Chinese border. Much of that border is in unpopulated areas. In 2020 Yanggang was where illegal border crossers from China brought covid19 into North Korea several times. Those line crossers who were later caught and tested for the virus were quietly executed if they had it. The province also has lots of illegal pleasures available for those who can pay. This includes senior government officials as well as donju entrepreneurs and career criminals. There was gambling, prostitution and all manner of videos or live entertainment. Neighboring Chagang Province also has a lot of smuggling activity and during 2020 the entire province was on lockdown for five days. The reason for this was a border guard sergeant had deserted after it was discovered that he probably had covid19 because several soldiers he had regular contact with recently died from what appeared to be covid19. The sergeant was also involved in several illegal enterprises.
Yanggang and Chagang provinces are both landlocked, sparsely populated and considered undesirable places to live, if only because this area is known as the coldest in Korea. The two provinces contain more than half the North Korean border with China. Chagang province also suffered a recent water pollution incident in a local river when a newly built chemical weapons plant began dumping something into the water that killed most of the fish and discouraged locals from using the river water for anything. The government was not very helpful, first describing the facility as a paint and varnish manufacturer. Local residents did not believe that and some openly mocked that official version. The pollution began at the end of 2020, is still present and the locals are angrier over the government inaction.
The extremely strict lockdowns are considered necessary because in most of the country there is no treatment for those who catch covid19. This still happens, despite the strict lockdowns and border security. Those suspected of having it, because of flu-like symptoms rather than testing, are quarantined, often under armed guard, for two weeks or more. The only place that any covid19 treatment is available is in Pyongyang and a few provincial capitals. The solution to all this is seen as a vaccine. North Korea is buying the same British vaccine that South Korea is using. But while South Korea can produce the vaccine locally (under license) North Korea has to import it from India, even though South Korea was willing to supply it at no cost. The vaccine deliveries to North Korea are expected to begin in a month or so and senior officials and security forces will have priority. At the end of 2020 North Korea reported that it had carried out 23,000 covid19 tests so far on 11,000 key people and found no cases of covid19. Meanwhile the lockdowns are causing starvation and lots of privation and anxiety.
A Light In The Dark
North Korea is going darker because of growing electricity shortages. It become so bad that only about a quarter of the households have regular supplies of electricity and most homes now get an average of two hours of power a day. This renders most appliances useless. Refrigerators need power for at least half the day to keep perishable foods safe. The power is not turned on using any schedule. Nationwide, priority is given to weapons development and production and even these facilities go dark about a quarter of the time. Senior officials can obtain generators and sufficient fuel to keep them going but this solution is available to less than one percent of households. Satellite photos show night views of North Korea reveal the country is growing darker each year. Higher resolution photos show more people washing clothes in rivers, streams and lakes because washing machines don’t work without electricity. For those who run the power systems, the rowing shortages has created more bribery income, although there is so little electricity that there is not a lot that can be diverted without risking arrest, loss of everything and years in a potentially fatal labor camp.
The decline in power supplies is due to several factors, starting with the decision to not invest in new power plants or maintaining existing ones. That’s because support of the military and developing missiles and nuclear weapons have priority. This has been especially true since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.
Then there is the water shortage. Drought has been more common since the 1990s and the last few years have been particularly bad. Professional weather forecasters predict more record droughts. The water shortages since 2015 already caused severe electricity shortages because so much power comes from generators at dams. Since 2012 the generating capacity of these dams has sharply declined. That has reduced economic activity more each year. This hurt transportation because 85 percent of trains are electrified. Most factories are unable to operate, and farms are producing less because irrigation pumps or farm machinery have no power.
Nuclear and missile programs have priority on energy and cash for imports, but this is in short supply as well. This has led to a growing number of emergency measures. The hydroelectric shortages are worse in the cold weather, when reservoirs are at their lowest. The electricity shortages are worst in the northeast and are so bad this year that many trains are not running at all. It has gotten so bad that mining operations that export and produce a lot of foreign currency are often shut down.
One partial solution to the power shortages is the availability of cheaper and more efficient solar panels. Long a staple of rural life, they are now more common in urban areas as well. Solar panels provide power for recharging cell phones and a few electrical appliances. Solar panel design became more efficient as the power shortages in North Korea became more frequent and widespread. Only the capital can depend on power most of the time. The government noticed the use of solar panels and made an unsuccessful effort to force people using solar panels, an expensive, but legal, way around electricity shortages, to buy an electrical use meter and pay a tax on the electricity generated. This was seen as an absurd scheme on several levels and so many solar panel owners overtly or covertly refused to cooperate that the government quietly backed down. The government, as the solar panel owners suspected, was not willing to go to war against “solar electricity bandits” and the “meters for solar panels” plan was quietly dropped even though the panels kept cell phones operational and people could compare their experiences with shortages. The government realized that despite enabling the spread of bad news, the growing use of solar panels reduced popular anger that energy shortages were creating. It was a way for newly affluent North Koreans to show off their new wealth in a politically acceptable way. While most of the solar panels are sold to entrepreneurs or those working for them, the growing number of government employees enjoying higher bribe income have also become fans of solar panels. The latest panel designs enable a home owner to not just provide a little light while charging gadget batteries but to operate a TV and turn on several lights. In this case users also take advantage of the new, low-power, LED light bulbs and panels. While this tech takes the edge off popular anger, it only works if the sanctions impact is eased. Increasingly effective sanctions mean fewer people can afford solar panels and LED lights, so North Koreans will be less willing to tolerate the sacrifices they make to keep the nuclear and missile programs going.
February 22, 2021: East Asian nations, including, China kept their covid19 infection rate low. That had little to do with being a communist police state because democracies like Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea produced verified results that showed how a disciplined response can keep covid19 infections and deaths at very low levels. While most Western nations reported covid19 death rates of 800 to 1,600 per million, South Korea reported 31, North Korea falsely reported none at all, Japan reported 59, Singapore five and Taiwan 0.4 per million.
China not claims it suffered only three deaths per million population capita and much less economic disruption than other industrialized nations. The lower economic disruption is obvious. South Korea suffered much less than other industrialized nations, seeing its GDP shrink only one percent. The only nation with better performance were Norway, which suffered 0.8 percent contraction and China claimed 2.3 percent GDP growth. China admits it has a problem with the accuracy of economic and other data. It will take a few years before economists and other researchers can discover that really happened in China during 2020. Unofficial reports from China indicate that Chinese covid19 deaths were much higher than reported. Even with that most Chinese were confident enough to go back to work, and large public gatherings like mass transit or movie theaters. To maintain this covid19 advantage China still sharply restricts Chinese from travelling outside the country and quickly quarantines any areas where more covid19 appears. The lower infection and death rates are the result of populations accustomed to acting in a unified and precise manner when confronting an emergency. North Korea has a long border with a populous and industrialized region of China and what happens in northeast China gets into North Korea and the rest of the world via cell phones and the Internet. Reports of local covid19 outbreak lockdowns in northeast and other parts of China continue to get into circulation.
February 16, 2021: In South Korea soldiers along the south end of the four-kilometers wide DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that separates the two Koreas spotted a civilian who had apparently just waked through the DMZ to escape from North Korea to South Korea. This was embarrassing but not unusual as North Korea defectors are regularly getting past North Korean and South Korean border guards and security systems and showing up in South Korea. The man, in his 20s, wanted that and was willing to risk death to achieve his goal.
February 15, 2021: During 2020 China often halted deliveries of gasoline and diesel fuel to North Korea because the Chinese deliveries were not being used in the market places, where everyone had access, but diverted to the military. North Korea kept promising to comply with Chinese restrictions and kept getting caught cheating. Smuggling these fuels via ship-to-ship transfer at sea was limited by increase scrutiny and more North Korean tankers being caught and seized. At the end of 2020 North Korea assured China that is would not cheat on fuel allocation and evidence was visible in early 2021 as market prices for gasoline and other fuels declined. Imports of refined petroleum products from China and Russia during the first six months of 2020 were only 17,000 tons, half what came in during the first six months of 2019.
February 10, 2021: In North Korea the selection of 10,000 workers for Russia has been completed and those selected are receiving their visas and work assignments. Most are on three-year contracts. There are far fewer North Korean workers in Russia and China because of increased sanctions. There was even more intense competition this year to get selected and bribes of up to $2,000 were demanded. The bribes enable the North Korean officials running the foreign worker program to make a lot of money, as long as they pass enough of it around to the MSS and senior officials to prevent prosecution for corruption.
In parts of Russia near the North Korean border there is a growing shortage of Russians for jobs in factories, construction and lumbering operations. Some of the employers are not treating their North Korean workers well and over the last decade more and more dissatisfied North Koreans were running away, despite the fact that escape means family members back in North Korea will be punished. The legal North Korea migrants are part of what amounts to a slave labor program that has become a major (up to $2 billion a year) source of foreign exchange for North Korea. The export of North Korean workers went from 60,000 men and women in 2014 to over 100,000 in 2015. The number of workers outside the country nearly tripled from what it was before since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011. The North Korean government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country, mainly in Russia and China, and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps. More enforcement of sanctions has reduced the number of North Koreans working in Russia and China by more than half. North Korea recently offered a $10,000 bounty for anyone in Russia who will aid in the capture of a North Korean worker who is attempting to escape from his labor contract and going back to North Korea.
February 3, 2021: Iran announced it was freeing most of the twenty-man crew of the South Korean chemical tanker the IRGC seized on January 2nd as part of a campaign to get nations holding frozen Iranian cash to release it. Iran justified the seizure by falsely accusing the tanker of pollution. Unofficially Iran will not free the tanker unless South Korea releases some or all of the $9 billion in Iranian cash frozen by American sanctions. South Korea initially demanded Iran release the tanker and ordered nearby South Korea warships with the Somali anti-piracy patrol to head to where the tanker was seized. Other nations with an interest in free passage to the Persian Gulf backed the South Korean demands. The extortion negotiations continued without much publicity. Neither country wants to go to war over this but Iran is desperate to get access to over $100 billion in frozen assets. South Korea holds so much Iranian cash because South Korea has long been a major customer for Iranian oil. Popular opinion in South Korea is hostile to making any concessions to the Iranians. In the end (late February) Iran won and South Korea agreed to unfreeze all the Iranian assets because Iran refused to release the crew without getting their money.
January 31, 2021: In South Korea a team of Filipino Navy officers and sailors completed their inspection of the second Rizal class frigates that were ordered in 2016. The second ships was declared in compliance with all contractual obligations and the South Korean crew that helped with the inspection, would take the ship to sea on February 5th for the five day voyage to the Philippines. These frigates cost $169 million each and are smaller versions of the South Korean FFX (Incheon class) frigate. The Rizal class frigates are 2,600-ton ships armed with a 76mm gun, a SMASH 30mm autocannon RWS (Remotely Operated System). This is Turkish system using the American Bushmaster 2 cannon. It has 150 rounds of ammo that can be fired singly or at up to 200 rounds a minute (3-4 a second) at targets up to three kilometers distant. The Italian 76mm cannon is also RWS and can fire 85 rounds a minute at targets up to 20 kilometers distant. Rizal is equipped to handle a CIWS (close in weapons system) like Phalanx but is not yet armed with one. There are also mounts for four 12.7mm machine-guns.
January 27, 2021: Corruption remains a major problem for North Korea and unlike China and South Korea there have been no major efforts to deal with the problem in North Korea. That is one reason why North Korea is such a wreck economically. The global aspect of this can be seen in the international surveys of nations to determine who is clean and who is corrupt. For 2020 North Korea ranked 170th out of 180 nations in international rankings compared with 172 in 2010. South Korea was in 33rd place compared with 39 in 2019.
These ratings and ranking are updated each year for the annual
Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (currently Venezuela and Yemen at 15, Syria at 14, South Sudan and Somalia at 12) have a rating of under 16 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are both 88.
For 2020 the North Korean score was 18 (17 in 2019) compared to 61 (59) for South Korea, 42 (41) for China, 36 (37) for Vietnam, 61 (61) for Israel, 67 (69) for the United States, 33 (35) for Egypt, 25 (26) for Nigeria, 44 (44) for South Africa, 21 (20) for Iraq, 40 (39) for Turkey, 53 (53) for Saudi Arabia, 33 (30) for Ukraine, 47 (45) for Belarus, 56 (58) for Poland, 80 (80) Germany, 65 (65) for Taiwan, 40 (39) for Turkey, 40 (41) for India, 30 (28) for Russia, 71 (71) for UAE, 85 (85) for Singapore, 74 (73) for Japan, 37 (40) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 31 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (26) for Bangladesh, 25 (26) for Iran, 19 (16) for Afghanistan, 28 (29) for Burma, and 25 (28) for Lebanon.
The North Korean corruption score has improved since 2012 when it was 8. South Korea was 56 in 2012.
January 26, 2021:
Japan continues to tolerate annual increases in defense spending. A record $51.5 billion will be spent during 2021. That’s an increase of three percent over 2020. The military had asked for $55 billion. Either way this is the ninth year in a row that Japan has increased defense spending and it is all about North Korea and China. North Korea openly complains about how unfair and unfriendly these increases are but they are a direct result of the increasing threat from North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea each have annual defense spending that is more than a third larger than the annual GDP of North Korea. That is one reason North Korea spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to 1.2 percent for Japan and nearly three percent for South Korea.
January 25, 2021: In North Korea an order went out at the end of 2020 to expand labor camp capacity and prepare more of them. Over a year of national lockdown, economic recession and the strictest ever border restrictions has led to a lot more people getting arrested. There are currently believed to be four main camps and a few smaller ones, holding at least 100,000 inmates. A decade ago, there were twice as many inmates and a lot more inmates.
Since 2015 the North Korean labor camp system has come under increasing scrutiny as a “crime against humanity.” It wasn’t until 2014 that North Korea officially acknowledged the existence of labor camps. This was in response to a UN investigation of the camps and the release of a report on that in early 2014. Until 2011 these "labor camps", which kill a large number of inmates via malnutrition, violence or disease, were overcrowded and getting worse for inmates. Normally built to hold about 150,000 enemies of the people, by 2011 there were closer to 200,000 inmates. The further growth in the prison population was controlled with less food and more violence. About 60 percent of those under arrest in North Korea are serving multi-year sentences in labor camps. Many of these inmates do not survive their sentences and hundreds each year are executed rather than being sent to camps. Until 2011 one percent of the North Korean population was in these labor camps, and 5-10 percent did not survive their time there. By 2015 North Korea had reduced its labor camp population to under 100,000 prisoners. This was the result of a higher death rate among prisoners since 2011 and not a policy of sending fewer people to prison and closing the unneeded camps. Some of the deaths were the result of more executions, but most were caused by food shortages. With growing hunger among civilians and military personnel, the government sought to obtain more food wherever it could. Cutting the already skimpy rations for prisoners was one such desperate measure and it meant more prisoners dying of starvation and disease. Since 2015 more people have been sent to the camps and living condition got worse and death rates increase.
For decades the UN looked the other way, under pressure from many powerful member nations like China and Russia, when it came to the North Korean “labor camps.” But since the 1990s too many former inmates escaped North Korea and testified about what they went through. As a result, the UN could no longer ignore the situation. This led to a formal investigation and documenting what went on, and apparently still goes on up there. Since the late 1990s the UN has become increasingly critical of conditions in North Korea but there was little the UN could do except publicize these problems. This bad publicity finally got to the point where North Korea decided to admit the camps existed and try to spin that news in their favor. The growing criminal activity in North Korea has brought back the need to arrest and jail or execute more people. Getting sent to labor camps is also now more likely to kill you. There is a major expansion of labor camp capacity, including building new camps. The government is planning on arresting a lot more North Koreans.
January 22, 2021:
China enacted a new law authorizing their navy and coast guard to use lethal force to “protect” Chinese coastal waters, including those that are disputed by nations. In other words, Chinese coast guard and navy vessel commanders have the authority to open fire on trespassers, even when international courts have declared it is the Chinese who are trespassing. That was the case with the Philippines, which brought the issue to an international court with jurisdiction. In 2016 that United Nation recognized Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China and stated that occupying uninhabitable rocks and building artificial islands did not confer an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Ownership of “rocks” gets you, at best 22 kilometers of territorial waters from the edge of each rock rather than 360 kilometers for EEZ rights. At first the U.S. merely called for China to comply with the court ruling, something China said it would not do even before the court completed its deliberations. The Americans did continue to carry out aerial and naval FONOPs with warships to assert the right of innocent passage. This annoyed the Chinese, who claimed most of the South China Sea was under Chinese control and no foreign ship or aircraft could enter without permission. China has been claiming areas long recognized as belonging to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. That has caused all these nations, plus the United States, Japan and South Korea to form an alliance to halt Chinese aggression. Until the new “permission to open fire” law, Chinese armed coast guard and navy vessels had only been used to intimidate “trespassers” and have never opened fire. There has been violence in the form of bumping or even ramming “trespassers”. This has led to the countries being threatened to send their own warships to defend their territory. Until now this would usually cause the Chinese warships to back off. But the new low allows Chinese captains to order crews to prepare for combat and use the fire control radars to concentrate on possible targets. In the Chinese playbook this means the Chinese want to goad someone else to open fire first, which would make China the designated victim (according to Chinese media) and justified in unleashing violent and probably overwhelming retaliation.